It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.
I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.
It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.
It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that
Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.
Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.
My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.
What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.
She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.
What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.
This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.
Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”
That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.
There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.
If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.